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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

UW System Budget Proposal Would Expand Free Tuition Promise Program To All Campuses

Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson speaks to workers and guests before a tour of the Reed Switch Developments Corp. manufacturing facility on Oct. 5, 2012 in Racine, Wis.

The University of Wisconsin System’s new interim leader wants to expand a free tuition promise program for low and moderate-income students to all UW campuses in the coming years. But it’s dependent on funding that may be difficult to procure during the COVID-19 crisis.

On Tuesday, interim President Tommy Thompson released his budget proposal for the upcoming biennium, which begins in July 2021. Thompson is asking the state for a $95.7 million boost in operations funding over the two-year period.

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“This budget is big, bold and aggressive,” Thompson said. “I’m sick and tired of apologizing for the University of Wisconsin. We’re an asset.”

The $95.7 million increase would support 10 priorities identified by Thompson. At the top of the list is replicating UW-Madison Bucky’s Tuition Promise program across the UW System.

The promise program would provide "last-dollar" scholarships for Wisconsin resident students who come from households earning $60,000 or less per year. That means that after Pell Grants and other scholarships, the program fills in any unmet financial need for those students. Bucky’s Promise has been in place at Madison since 2018.

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One reason Madison is able to pull off a tuition promise program is because it has fewer low-income students. In an interview in 2019, UW-Milwaukee Vice Chancellor of Finance Robin Van Harpen said a free-tuition program hasn’t been feasible at UWM because it has about 3,000 more Pell-eligible students than Madison.

“We have such a greater body of students who are Pell-eligible and have that financial need, and a smaller revenue base overall, than Madison does,” Van Harpen said.

A UWM spokesman declined an interview for this story, saying the school was waiting to find out more about the UW System’s budget proposal.

Thompson said during the press conference that he wanted to help more low-income students attend UW schools.

“I want that poor student from Elroy to have the same opportunity that I did,” Thompson said. “I want a poor child that's underprivileged and underserved in Milwaukee to come to UW-Milwaukee — get that education, be the first one in his or her family — a poor child of color that’s never had that chance.”

Thompson also wants to use the $96 million in requested state funding to bolster online education, make more financially viable education pathways for student teachers, expand student mental health support, and expand education in prisons.

It’s unclear how Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and the Republican-led state Legislature will respond to the UW System’s request for more money. The state is suffering significant financial losses due to the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout. Evers directed state agencies to make cuts this fiscal year and last fiscal year because of the pandemic’s impact. The cuts add up to a more than $100 million loss for the UW System.

UW schools also suffered financial losses last spring when campuses shut down, and they’re bracing for major shortfalls this year with expected costs due to COVID-19 and decreases in enrollment. For example, UW-Milwaukee is making a $25 million cut to its budget — the biggest single-year reduction in its history. It may lead to employee layoffs in the coming months.

The UW System budget proposal will go before the Board of Regents at a meeting on Thursday. Thompson says he will advocate to keep an in-state tuition freeze in place, even though some regents have argued it’s time to do away with the freeze.

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Emily is WUWM's education reporter and a news editor.
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